Category Archives: Hot Docs

Hot Docs: Bintou

It’s never a good sign when the Q&A is exponentially more interesting than the actual movie. On Friday, the first movie I saw was Bintou, a film about a young seamstress in Burkina Faso who works mainly for white ex-pats.


The poster for the movie

I was interested in this movie because I, as a white Westerner, have gone to Africa and had clothing made for pretty cheap prices. I recognized myself in parts of the movie.White people don’t haggle over prices, for example, Bintou explains. No, we don’t, because they’re so much cheaper than what we’re used to.

But the movie itself fell fairly flat. The director, Simone Catharina Gaul, said they’d shot about 80 hours of footage and edited it down to this one hour. It was basically about Bintou’s life, the unusual living situation with her daughter, and the “secret” around her daughter’s birth, which is never fully revealed. What I would’ve wanted – and this is what I saw in most of the excellent movies at Hot Docs I saw this year – was the social commentary.

When I was in Zambia, I bought a bunch of fabric in the local market (my host, my former boss who has retired back to her homeland of Zambia, actually told me to stop buying fabric at one point, half-jokingly. But it was all just so beautiful). Then we went to a seamstress that my host and her family used quite often, and who they bring tourists to, and I had a few outfits made. And they’re beautiful. But I don’t know anything about this woman except for, really, her name. Margaret.


My suitcase of clothes made by Margaret

During the Q&A, Gaul spoke about the white ex-pats who go to seamstresses like Bintou and don’t seem to be interested in the people who make these clothes. The Westerners are just going to get a dress for $6, as she puts it. They wanted to give Bintou a voice – which is why they gave her her own video camera to shoot her own footage, which also appears in the film.

Gaul also spoke about some of the difficulties of filming in the country. In West Africa, she explained, people are suspicious of WHite people taking photos or videos because of previous bad experiences. They’ve experienced people taking photos and then suddenly when they go back to their home countries and need something to illustrate “HIV in Africa” or “starvation in Africa,” any photo with Black people in it will do.


Fabric in a Lusaka market

But none of these very important issues came through in the film. It was a nice little story about a young woman in Burkina Faso, but there was no “oomph”; it wasn’t compelling. And from what I heard on my way out of the theatre, others agreed with me.

Oh well. They can’t all be gems.

Verdict: 3/5


Hot Docs: Watchers of the Sky

On Tuesday night, I saw an amazing documentary called Watchers of the Sky. It was about the history of genocide and pays particular attention to Raphael Lemkin, the “unsung hero” who coined the term “genocide” and pushed for it to be recognized as a global crime by the United Nations.


The director, Edet Belzbeg, approached the film from the perspective of four main characters – Samantha Power, US ambassador to the United Nations; Luis Moreno Ocampo, former Chief Prosecutor with the International Criminal Court; Benjamin Ferencz, a prosecutor at Nuremberg; and Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a Rwandan UN refugee officer working in Chad. The fifth character, who has inspired them all and knits the narrative together, is Raphael Lemkin.

It was a movie that had a lot of resonance for me. I’d been to Butare in Rwanda, where some of the scenes with Emmanuel Uwurukundo were filmed. While working for Aegis Trust in London, UK, one of the alleged war criminals we “tracked” was Ratko Mladić, who was largely responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica and who features in this film in archival footage. And of course, I’ve loved Samantha Power’s book, A Problem from Hell, which was the inspiration for this film.

Technically, there was one thing that distracted me in the film – the use of subtitles for people speaking English (who had accents), but not consistently. Sometimes the subtitles would only be used for parts of the sentence, for example. It was a bit weird.

But another technical element that did impress me was the use of original archival footage, including a lot of footage that I’d never seen before, especially from the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

This film raised a lot of questions for me in a mind that hasn’t had a lot of opportunity lately to delve into this kind of content and intellectual activity. One thing that struck me while watching the film is when Ocampo speaks about the disappearances in Argentina and how “the numbers weren’t there for genocide.”

But do the numbers really matter?

This reminded me of the time I met Stephen Lewis after an event honouring his wife, the incredible journalist Michele Landsberg. We got to talking about Rwanda, and I told him about the research I did for my Masters dissertation, on the rights of children conceived through rape during the Rwandan genocide. At one point we started talking numbers – number of children, etc –  and I said something like, “Well, some NGOs estimate that if about 250,000 women were raped during the genocide…”

He interrupted me to ask, “Do you really believe that number?”

I was taken aback by this question. I hadn’t really thought about it before; I’d just taken it for granted. Yes, of course we should question numbers and try to get truthful statistics. But at the same time, does it matter what the numbers were? Is 25,000 women raped not enough? What about 5,000? What about 1? In terms of defining something as a genocide, the numbers don’t matter. It is about the intent to destroy, “in whole or in part,” a particular group of people.

Numbers don’t mean anything to the individual human beings on the ground, living through these situations.

In the same vein, it doesn’t necessarily matter to the victims if what they are experiencing is termed a genocide, or ethnic cleansing, or war crimes, or crimes against humanity. Or all of the above. Or none of the above.

Still, Raphael Lemkin worked so hard to have the concept of the crime of genocide codified in international law. And that is not insignificant. Sadly, he died alone, waiting for a bus, from a heart attack. Less than a dozen people attended his funeral. Nowadays, everyone knows the term “genocide,” yet we are often bogged down in semantics, arguing what is or is not a genocide. Often so that we – or our country – doesn’t have any obligation to intervene.


My worn copy of “A Problem from Hell”

There were shortcomings in this film. I would’ve liked to see a more nuanced perspective regarding the International Criminal Court. Following the Lubanga trial, for example, a few years ago, I saw what I interpreted to be blatant incompetence on the part of Ocampo and his colleagues on two separate occasions (perhaps that’s a story for another post). But a film can’t show everything – it needs to have a narrative, and it’s purpose is to make an argument.

This film was about connecting the dots. About making connections and seeing patterns, so that we can perhaps stop similar atrocities from taking place in the future. Lemkin knew how to recognize these patterns – the film speaks about his obsession with learning about historical acts of genocide, starting with the Armenian genocide. When things started getting bad in Europe, Lemkin went to warn his parents, begging them to leave with him for the United States (he arrived in 1941). But they refused to leave – not seeing that a government or army would want anything to do with them, this elderly couple in the Polish countryside. In the end, Lemkin lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust.

There was a beautiful narrative arch in this film – from Raphael Lemkin and his persistent attempts to have the UN recognize the crime of genocide to that of a modern day Lemkin, Benjamin Ferencz (the former prosecutor at Nuremberg) who is now similarly lobbying countries at the UN to recognize the crime of aggression in terms of war.

The film ends with Ferencz tearing up as he tells the story of an astronomer years ago who “watched the sky.” He spent 25 years observing the stars, trying to find the secret of the universe, and he didn’t. Someone asks him why he keeps doing it – when he will stop. After all, he already has 90 logbooks full of his observations. “I’ll stop when I hit 100,” he replies. “Why? What for? What are you achieving?” the inquirer asks. “We build on top of each others’ work. Maybe,” he explains, “I’m saving someone down the line 25 years of work.”

That, my friends, is the stuff of legends.

Verdict: 4.5/5.0

Hot Docs: Children 404

I feel I am human.

– Justin/Pasha on living in Toronto for the past 6 months

Child 404 Logo; source: Wikimedia Commons

Children 404 Logo; source: Wikimedia Commons

The second movie I saw yesterday was Children 404. Another heavy movie, but one well worth the watch. A film by Pavel Loparev and Askold Kurov, and co-presented by Cinema Politica, Children 404 tells the story of LGBTQ youth in Russia, a population made even more invisible by the country’s recent “gay propaganda” law. The film focuses on the stories told through the Children 404 project – an online community started by Elena Klimova, a Russian journalist who wrote a series of articles on LGBTQ youth in Russia last March. It is called Children 404 after the “Error 404 – Page Not Found” on the Internet, the idea being that these children are invisible in Russia, that some people don’t believe they even exist. So they are reclaiming their identity – bolding proclaiming “We’re here and we’re queer” (though maybe not in so many words).

In these months after the Sochi Olympics, the situation of LGBTQ rights in Russia has fallen somewhat off the radar. Even when it was on the international agenda, rarely did LGBTQ-identified youth have a voice in the mainstream media. And so it was incredibly interesting and important to hear from these youth themselves. We heard from a boy who lives in Sochi and describes it as a very homophobic city, who is humiliated every day and had to move from his mother’s house to another district where no one knew him. According to the directors, he doesn’t think anything has changed since the Olympics.

There were stories of youth being thrown out of their homes, of mothers telling their children that they wished they’d miscarried rather than give birth to a sick monster like them. There were stories of social workers and therapists blaming the LGBTQ youth for their own harassment – telling them, for example, that it is because they hate the homophobes that the homophobes hate them back. And that if they loved them, they would receive love in return <insert collective groan from the audience>. Elena and her partner share a bit of their story as well, and about how they were both fired from their job when their relationship became known.

The film also follows Pasha, a 19-year-old young man who is planning to move to Toronto to learn English, become a journalist, and realize his dream of having a family with a male partner. The scene where he sings the Canadian national anthem in his broken English (“We stand on guard for free!!” he sings joyously) inside Lenin’s Mausoleum is one of my favourites.

Pasha’s family is one of the only supportive ones we see in the film. His mother is incredibly loving and protective, and even his somewhat racist (they talk about him having “black children” with a “black woman” in Toronto, who they will then take fishing, etc) grandparents know about his sexuality and actively love him just the same. It made me tear up. A lot made me tear up.

But what really got me was when the Q&A reached its second or third question and it was revealed that Pasha was in the audience, as many of us suspected and hoped. As he came up to the stage, he received a long standing ovation. It was powerful.

He now somewhat jokingly goes by “Justin” as well, an homage to Justin Bieber (who Pasha mournfully refers to as “straight” in the film).

The Directors with

The Directors with Justin/Pasha (second from the left) during the Q&A

The words “fag” and “faggot” are used quite liberally throughout the film, as we witness the harassment taking place firsthand. It’s a jarring word, and one that I don’t usually encounter in everyday life. One of the most incredible things Pasha does during the film is create a poster regarding a social living index (I’m unsure which one he uses) that reads something along the lines of “Russia is 66th and you can’t be gay here. Canada is 2nd and gays can get married. Maybe we should start focusing on the important things?” He then stands in what I believe is the Red Square in Moscow, enduring the ensuing taunts. One man spits on him and calls him that horrible F word; both are brought to the police station and both are eventually released, Pasha believes, because the police did not want to deal with the other guy.

Many of the questions during the Q&A involved what we could do, here in Toronto, for LGBTQ youth in Russia. All three men – the directors and Justin/Pasha – said that talking about this issue is the most important thing we can do. “You can help us by talking about it,” Justin/Pasha explains. “The problem of children 404 is that society wants to pretend they don’t exist, so we need to bring them out into the open.”

Justin/Pasha will be at World Pride this summer. He is one of the lucky ones, able to get out of Russia. As he repeatedly tells the audience, it’s impossible for 99% of these teenagers to move to a country like Canada. They need money, they need a visa. He hopes that the Canadian government will learn about the issues facing Children 101 and will begin to support them in immigrating.

Last night was the international premier; it was an honour to be one of the first audiences to see this impressive documentary. It did have a small showing in Moscow earlier, the directors told us. It must’ve been only days ago, as they also said they finished the film only the week before. As the screening in Moscow was about to start, Orthodox activists broke into the room with weapons and police, trying to find minors and accuse the non-minors there of gay propaganda. The police checked everyone’s documents; there were no minors there, and the audience chanted “We want to see the film” while the search went on. The directors don’t know what the repercussions will be for having produced this film; they don’t know if it will become banned in Russia. Children 404 became available online last night in Russia, after the screening took place in Toronto. Hopefully many Russians will see it; hopefully it will have an impact.

As Elena said in the film, changes in society’s viewpoints are inevitable. 60 years ago, things were much different in the USA, she says, referring to racial segregation in the South. “And what is 60 years? Only 2 generations!” she exclaims. Elena sees a future as an elderly woman, when children will wonder in amazement at the idea that gay people were discriminated against in her country. Her hope is inspiring – I too believe it is inevitable, but for the sake of the Russian youth struggling today, I pray it comes sooner rather than later.

Verdict: 5.0/5.0

Check it out – there’s three more screenings!

Hot Docs: Nelson Mandela: The Myth & Me

Nelson Mandela. Synonymous with reconciliation. Forgiveness. A grandfatherly figure, laughing and smiling (though perhaps not as much as Desmond Tutu).

Freeing South Africa. Creating the Rainbow Nation.

A comforting narrative. Not a controversial figure. Not someone who used violence to reach his goals, who was labelled a terrorist by the American, and many other, governments. Not someone who said that our freedom is bound up in the freedom of the Palestinians.

The second film I saw at the Hot Docs festival 2014 was titled Nelson Mandela: The Myth & Me, also known as A Letter to Nelson Mandela. This was not a love letter to Mandela. It was a critical look at the myth that rose up once he was released from jail and went on to become South Africa’s first Black president. As one of the interviewees put it, he wasn’t that genteel, benign grandfatherly figure. “He was cold.”

Because the reality is that Mandela was the epitome of the phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” He’s been called both during his lifetime, and he’s made the epic arc from being widely viewed as a terrorist to now being overwhelmingly considered a saint; in fact, few people would argue otherwise, at least in polite company.


Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, November 2011

This film, however, argues a more nuanced perspective of the man behind the myth. As write and director Khalo Matabane said during the Q&A after the screening, quoting the incredible Chimamanda Adichie, “It’s dangerous to have a single narrative. Mandela suffers from that, from the Western media as well as the media in South Africa.” For Matabane, this film was meant to provide multiple alternative narratives to the story of a man who is often only portrayed through a single lens.

And so he interviewed many diverse subjects – ranging from leftist activists to right-wing Conservative politicians (side note: when Henry Kissinger appeared on the screen, I wanted to boo and hiss. Same when Colin Powell described himself as essentially a peace activist who knew when to use hard power to get back to the bigger goal of peace. I did restrain myself). He interviewed people who believed that forgiveness was the ultimate goal – that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa went about things the right way, and that Madiba succeeded in transitioning from an armed idealist to a politician who could birth and cultivate a healthy, thriving democracy.

But there were other interview subjects who saw things differently. Who saw things similarly to the way I saw them when I visited South Africa two and a half years ago. They spoke of the myth of Mandela as a hero and a god (which was telling, as only gods can forgive, as one interviewee put it). And that he’d bought into that myth and even encouraged it. One woman, who’s caption simply read “Feminist” below her name (and apologies but I don’t remember the name and there’s no list of interview subjects online that I can find), spoke of how the reality on the ground was much different from the myth. The myth says that South Africans are free, that they are so much better off than they were under Apartheid, when they were dying in the streets. “But depending on who you are,” she said, “people still are dying in the streets.”

South Africa is a country of extreme contrasts. It’s the most advanced African country when it comes to LGBTQ rights, and yet Black lesbians know the fear of corrective rape all too well. It has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, yet it is also one of the most unequal societies in the world. This was starkly illustrated when I was flying into Cape Town from London at the end of 2011. Flying into the airport, when we got low enough that I could really see the houses, I saw grandiose homes, nearly every single one with a swimming pool. Then the homes became more structured, more box-like, and there were no more bursts of blue in their backyards. Finally, closest to the airport, was the township.


Khayelitsha township, the largest one in South Africa, with over 1 million inhabitants, Nov 2011


A typical home in Langa township, November 2011

It’s been twenty years – almost to the day (April 27, 1994) – since South Africa had its first democratic elections (here’s a good article about the changes, good and bad, and what hasn’t changed, since the end of Apartheid). Yet the country is still widely divided along racial lines. The poorest of the poor are overwhelmingly Black, with the richest of the rich still being overwhelmingly White. This is seen in terms of land. From when Apartheid ended until the end of 2011, when I visited the country, less than 7% of the land had been transferred. Rich White landowners own the big farms, and poorer, Black small scale farmers are landless and continue to suffer under a similar unequal system as they did under Apartheid. (Side note: there are organizations like Surplus People Project working for land reform. See my blog post from November 2011)


Willem, a small-scale farmer without access to water on the land he farms (but does not own) near Citrusdal, Western Cape, November 2011

As some young people interviewed in the film commented (and this was filmed when he was still alive), Mandela never goes to bed hungry. Mandela is fed because of them, they argue. Another interviewee says its easy to forgive when you’re the president. But what about the woman in the hut whose son went missing and who is inconsolable every time she realizes that the footsteps she hears outside her home are not that of her long lost son returning? We are being presumptuous, insulting even, if we think we can comfort her.

This brings up the issue of forced reconciliation, which is somewhat addressed in the film. As one interviewee analogizes, “If someone steals your watch and asks for forgiveness but is still wearing your watch, what good is that?” It creates a culture of impunity, not one of reconciliation, he argues.

What good is forgiveness if it is coerced? I am very uncomfortable with forgiveness narratives, especially around genocide or ethnic cleansing or system human rights abuses. The 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide was earlier this month, and there were countless media portrayals of perpetrators standing with their victims in solidarity and forgiveness. I remember when I was completing my Masters degree and seeing a short video of a Rwandan woman serving food to the man who had killed her entire family, in a move that the narrator clearly viewed to be inspirational. But for me, there’s a problem with that. Not least because, when I visited Rwanda in 2009, I heard time and time again, “We have no choice but to forgive.”

In the TRC in South Africa, there were times during the hearings when forgiveness was definitely coerced, or at least strongly encouraged. I heard one story, during my Political Reconciliation class at LSE (taught by Dr. Claire Moon who’s written extensively on South Africa) of a victim who came to tell her story even though her perpetrators refused to appear. Yet still she was asked, repeatedly, by the Commissioners, “But you forgive them, right?”

That’s why it was so interesting that Matabane included the story of Charity Kondile, who refuses to forgive the man who killed her son, Sizwe. “I was looking for an alternative narrative to the Black woman who cries at the TRC and forgives,” Matabane explained during the Q&A. “I was trying to be as honest as possible in a world where everything, even documentaries, is a performance.”

I couldn’t help but think back to the time last month I spent at the TRC in Edmonton. In this Canadian context, I didn’t encounter that kind of “cult of forgiveness” that has appeared in other reconciliation processes. While we may still argue whether justice is being done in this care, or any of the cases discussed in this blog post, the Canadian TRC process is much more victim/survivor focused. It is about survivors telling their stories, and having institutional perpetrators apologize to them. Very rarely did individual perpetrators appear before the Commission, although it did happen. Of course, concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation were discussed and promoted at the TRC. But I never felt a coercive element; survivors were allowed to be angry and to remain angry. To tell their story as they saw it. Reconciliation is a process. As Elder Lorna Standingready said to me one day in Edmonton, the residential school system operated for over 100 years. We can’t expect it all be fixed in the few years of the TRC’s mandate.

But back to Matabane’s movie. Watch the trailer below. And then make sure you see the full feature film as soon as you can.

Verdict: 4.5/5.0